Music Performed (Part 1)

There are different paths one can take when making a record and each offers its own unique rewards.  One path seeks to create something that cannot exist in real life, a work of sonic fiction valuable for the imaginary landscapes it embodies.  Another path seeks to capture, as closely as the latest technology allows, the sound of a real performance in a real space.  While I appreciate both types of recording, I am most interested in exploring the idea of records that sound like performances.  The reason is simple:  For me, the record is merely a vehicle that provides access to the music.  While I love records, for me, the greatest excitement in music is the performance event.  Capturing the performance event is my favorite way to make a record because listening to a performance is my favorite way to listen to music.

Jeff Buckley was spot on when he referred to music as a force of Nature.  Music has impacted so many parts of my life, I can’t imagine its absence.  Though most of the music I have come to love has come to me via recordings, for this entry of the Soundkeeper blog I’m thinking of those musical performances I attended that have left me with lifelong memories.  I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend concerts by the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and many others too numerous to mention, and for these I will be ever grateful for the recorded legacies they left behind.  On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to be present at performances by many other musical heroes and these remain indelibly engraved in my being.

Several of the memories were created at the old Fillmore East on the lower east side in New York City.  My first visit occurred shortly after the release of John Mayall’s landmark album “The Turning Point” when I saw him play it live.  I also attended performances by B.B. King and Taj Mahal in this theater.  Sitting in the third row as Moby Grape rocked the room with “Omaha” and later, the band’s bassist Bob Mosley sang a solo a capella “Ode to the Man at the End of the Bar” brought home the energy of one of my favorite bands of the era.

In the Summer of 1971, George Harrison and Ravi Shankar’s Concert for Bangladesh at New York’s Madison Square Garden was my first arena concert.  Musical hero after musical hero came upon the stage, thrilling me to live performances by so many folks I’d previously only heard via recordings.  From the opening set by Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan (the latter one of my first world music heroes) to subsequent performances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (right there, half of my all-time favorite band), Eric Clapton (one of my first guitar “teachers”, whose records I would play over and over again as I learned to play different parts), Leon Russell and Billy Preston, these were some of the most exhilarating performances I can remember.

When a Rolling Stones tour was announced, it seemed like getting tickets would be near impossible.  The promoters decided to hold a lottery whereby folks would send in postcards and the winners would be drawn at random, each winning postcard entitling the sender to purchase four tickets to the show.  I remember an evening of filling out postcard after postcard and dropping them in the mailbox.  As I was about to take a trip out of state, I’d asked good friends to try and secure a ticket for me, in case they got lucky with their entries.  When the drawing was complete, it turned out eight of the postcards I’d sent in were selected.  I got to go and so did 31 friends!  Our seats might have well been near the ceiling—not that there was any trouble hearing the sound system though—but hey, it was the Stones!  Live!

The best seats I ever had at the Garden were for Genesis on the “Duke” tour in 1980.  I’d just mastered the CD for this album and really enjoyed being present when the group performed the album at the show.

Fun though the arena shows are, my favorite live concerts have been the ones in smaller venues, where there is more real contact with the artist.  Perhaps my favorite of all was a triple bill at New York’s Beacon Theater.  The roster that night included Van Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, and Tim Buckley.  Van had just released “His Band and the Street Choir” and the band played many tracks from the album along with some favorites from the previous record, “Moondance”.  Though I was familiar with and admired Linda’s voice from her work with the Stone Poneys, she was still a relatively new discovery to me.  Tim Buckley had just released “Starsailor”, his follow-up to “Lorca”, both of which remain two of my favorite albums.  It was a treat to be present as his band performed songs from both albums and to hear Tim sing in person.  I particularly admired the musicianship in this band where both the vocals and instrumental lines would tend toward more oblique and quite original turns than are typical of most popular music.

More recently, I’ve had the good fortune to attend several performances by Richard Thompson at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  Over the course of a bit more than a year, I’ve also finally gotten to hear another of my favorite artists at this same hall:  I love all of their albums but being in the room when Los Lobos plays and sitting still are two things I am not able to do at the same time.

That visceral experience of being in the presence of music being performed is to me, life lived to its fullest.

Next time out, live jazz in New York City.

Music: In Gratitude

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the vehicle by which Music first came to me.  It was a small, tan and reddish brown, all-in-one record player, which had one speaker, perhaps 3 inches in diameter, located between the light brown platter and the base of the tonearm. The “needle” assembly was the type that had a small extension going to the side, which could be used to flip the assembly over in order to expose a second needle. One side was used for LPs and singles, the other side for “78s”.

The records it played were a mix of some classics (I can distinctly recall the green label on a 78 rpm set of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”), several “33s” of original cast recordings, and a few pop albums (Elvis’ Gold Records stands out in memory) but mostly, the “45s” filled with the street corner harmonies of rhythm and blues based late ‘50s Doo Wop, as well as other R&B.  I can still see the pale blue and tan colors on the label of a single by Little Anthony and the black and red label on the single of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”

As music took hold of my spirit, I became increasingly interested in both how music is made and later on, how recordings of music are made.  At age nine, I started piano lessons, then guitar lessons.  We didn’t have a piano at home but I did have a guitar. Guess which one stuck. (Many years later, once on my own, a piano did come but guitar had a good head start.)  I had a set of drums too but growing up in an apartment building set limits on when they could be played.  A few years later, some school friends and I started getting together to “jam” on Saturday afternoons.  I started recording our jams using my brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and found I could play drums, then add a guitar part.  It would be several years later that I would hear the terms “multitracking” and “overdubbing”.

If listening to music (of all types) was becoming an important nourishment for the deepest parts of me, the “minimum daily requirement” increased significantly the day I first heard the Beatles on the radio.  While other music seemed to have pre-existed, to have been there waiting for me to find it, the Beatles felt like the moment.  Their music brought a good many firsts to my experience.  I’d never before anticipated an artist’s next release – and each new Beatles release seemed to present a new musical world.  I’d never concentrated on the lyrics to this degree.  (Actually, for the first several listens to any song, I still hear sung lyrics as another instrument.  Only after I’ve digested the vocals as raw sound do I find myself hearing the meaning in the words.)  It is amazing to consider how much musical ground this ensemble covered in a very short amount of time.  There is probably much more I can say about the Beatles and the impact their music had (and has) on my life.  For now, I’ll just say they added value to it.  I know of nothing greater any work of art can accomplish.

Some years later, I was turned on to jazz and with it, radically expanded musical horizons.  Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and countless other artists simply opened up the way I heard music, providing musical landscapes I couldn’t have imagined before.  Charles Mingus could put so much passion in his compositions, the rhythms themselves might warrant an “R” rating.

Ultimately, music is the performance.  It is played and then it is gone.  While there is certainly nothing like being in the presence of the players when the music is created, the overwhelming majority of the music I’ve heard came to me through recordings.  How else could I have experienced the music from so many who had already passed by the time I heard them?  What magic!  No wonder I became fascinated with records from an early age.  Music of the ages, music for the ages, all available at the listener’s whim.  Those early experiences with the reel-to-reel recorder were just the first tentative steps.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was just getting started on a long, wonderful journey.